February 17, 2015

The Stakes are in the Stroke: "Made in China: A Doug Fishbone Project"

Photograph: Robert Sanderson for the BBC
By Liza Weber, ARCA '14 Alumna

In 1811 Sir John Soane drew up the blueprint for Dulwich Picture Gallery, Britain’s first public art gallery. That is, Sir Radical Soane drew up a template for how to house Francis Bourgeois’ first-class private collection: open its Bourgeois doors to the public. Two centuries on and the template—save for the ticket price—has not been tampered with. For where the conceptual artist, Doug Fishbone, today asks the public to discern the dud in the gallery’s Permanent Collection of Claude’s to Canaletto’s, its welcome mat is down.

But a dud, mind you, that is meant to spark—spark intrigue, in anyone who has ever suspected that a Christmas gift was too-leather-good-to be-true. Intrigue in you, the sceptic. Spotting the fake from the fortune is not reserved for the BBC-coiffed-likes of Fiona Bruce as she uncovers, in the attic, ancestors with considerable assets. Spotting the fake from the fortune is as good a guess yours as it is (t)heirs.

Made in China, somewhere South. Mailed to Dulwich, South London. Mailed with a questionable £120 invoice (supposedly Meishing Oil Painting Manufacture Company kept the carbon copy). And at last hung in the frame belonging to the fortune. All within the dead of night.

Photograph: Robert Sanderson for the BBC
When the 10th morning of February was broken, I donned my detective hat to try my eye at the collection’s 270 paintings for the counterfeit thing. Ok, I lie. I tried my eye at about a dozen. My reasoning? 
1. The painting had to be at eye-level. To hang it in the upper echelons of the burgundy galleries would be a gesture, paradoxically, below the belt. 
2.  It was French. 
The French bit was an itch. A hunch. Over something, something perhaps remembered…

French Art was particularly popular post-WWII, which meant that a great number of fakes surfaced to supply the demand. They have been washing-up like driftwood ever since. French Law—as if to build a dam—allowed the confiscation and burning of counterfeit works at the behest of the artist’s estate. (I think it still does.) A French fake then is about high stakes. If Fishbone genuinely had a bone to pick with authenticity, or lack thereof, he surely would have pitched his conceptual stakes high? Call my reasoning what you will, the fact is, I’m an art critic in the making and freelance, so with nothing much to lose. Here goes my guess.

It was a toss-up between Nicolas Poussin’s
1.  'Landscape with Travellers Resting (or A Roman Road)', 1648
2.  'The Triumph of David', c.1628-31
It was the frame around the frame of the former that found me suspicious:
1.  The wall panel text read This canvas seems to have been painted as a pair to the ‘Landscape with a Man washing his Feet at a Fountain (or A Greek Road)’ now in the National Gallery London. I am always wary of a wall text that finds space, in less than 100 words, to use up one with ‘seems’. I am looking at some sort of semblance—a likeness, image, or copy of. Seeing double. X-ray examinations show that the canvas was first used for a partial copy of Poussin’s ‘Moses trampling Pharaoh’s Crown’, now in the Louvre. Now I am seeing triple. Why ever not a fourth?
2.  The gallery walls, an unforgiving Payne’s grey, were scuffed here, there, in fact, everywhere. Fresh tracks of movement. But tracks that you would be, if anything, lazy not to cover up with a lick of paint. No, it was all too obvious…
Plus Poussin’s travellers are behind a pane of glass. It is simply impractical to get up close and personal. And yet ‘close and personal’ is exactly what Dulwich Picture Gallery is asking of its visitors. No, this Poussin is too obscured from fine observation.

‘The Triumph of David’ is comparatively clear. One of Poussin’s most studied and cerebral compositions, it is the focal point of the French room, bordered by a burgundy archway and a beckoning chaise longue. Come sit it says. So I stand, an inch-close to the canvas. Load a Google image on my iPhone. Compare physical with pixelated paint. There is something altogether off here:
1. Look at the cracked foundation in the lower left corner; its fallen stone fragments. Count the sandal straps. Follow the extraordinary length of the ladies fingers, pointing here, there, no there. This is geometry. That art historical school that gallery director Ian Dejardin distrusts for trying too hard to tie down the imprecise phenomenon of artistic composition. A school that is perhaps here apt. Getting close and personal means to study not merely the flatness of the piece (for every Fake is, according to the guess-pert, Flat), but the properties and relations of points, lines, surfaces, and solids. It is perhaps then time to take a solid seat. And stare a while longer. 
2. For this Poussin is the Director’s Choice. Which is to say, ‘The Triumph of David’ made it into Dejardin’s selected 37 paintings for book publication. It made the cut. Why not a copy? Remember, Doug Fishbone is in collaboration with Dejardin. His choice matters.
Plus this is a painting of a procession, a procession—Dejardin reminds us—that passes through a representative section of humanity where every gesture and action is significant. If Fishbone and Dejardin wanted to stress the whole(sale) sordid affair of Chinese Studios, and their replicas as downright disruptive to the Market, they would have surely stressed it in a painting where every stroke counts?

To conclude let me approach the one big question—the one big question Fishbone and Dejardin set to Xylophone tones in their video trailer for the project—
Does it have an aura?
I won’t bore you with Walter Benjamin. For now, let us just agree that the aura is in the waiting. The reveal: 28th April 2015. I, for one, am counting.
And as I count I discover that I was not the only one staring at the Poussin on the 10th morning of February. The Daily Mail caught a lady on the chaise longue. She was donning a red beret. How Very French.  

Ms. Weber is a freelance journalist.

For additional reading on this subject, please follow this link to Angelina Giovani's piece on the blog "plundered art", a perspective from the Holocaust Art Restitution Project. Angie is also an ARCA alumna.

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